We Are Only Shown the Symptoms

The world we live in is described to us by media. This seems obvious enough, but to what extent is it any way accurately represented? What do they choose to show us, and to not show us? How much do they shape our views of the world so we remain docile enough for the financial and political elites to advance their interests continually over ours, ever-tightening their grip on the planet? Perhaps this is the logic of a kook, but it does have a certain truth to it… a well-respected British sketch show called That Mitchell and Webb Look aired a  sketch which implies that TV might be used in such a way, though – because it was broadcast on a mainstream network – could not openly imply that such realities were already in place:

It’s worth noting that finding the full version of this sketch isn’t easy: The first google results with the correct (obscure) keywords bring up an abridged version that completely cut off the dystopian twist. It might be that there’s an interest in deterring Americans from watching British TV shows, especially cutting-edge sketch shows (for its time in 2010), and especially their most rebelling-against-the-powerful sketch. It’s easy to find the ironic sketch of Robert Webb dancing in a banana suit on YouTube, but to find a critique of media telling us to relax while death robots kill resistance fighters is harder to come by.

But what does that have to do with us? We are not in a world of death robot-wielding overlords creating a dystopia for us to allow to overwhelm us while we settle into entertainment-induced docility. Right? Well…

Nick Dyer-Witheford, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, wrote an essay describing how our world is being taken over by a global, increasingly automated, financial-technological machine. It may seem outlandish, but his argument is well grounded and rather compelling. It even includes an explanation of UAV’s, America’s ‘Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles’: flying robots which scour the international warzone of the swaths of the greater Middle East, automatically scanning, searching for ‘enemy combatants’ – who I’ve learned through both scuttlebutt and news articles are often harmless civilians, often bringing a predator drone’s missile screaming to destroy them. As for fully automated death robots, there are a growing number of articles from reputable news sources. One is here.

One of the main manifestations of his theorized hyper-capitalist, or perhaps post-capitalist, view of our broken system is the control of what I would call a “technical proletariat”: young men of third world countries performing what was once only the sort of work that could be done by Western people (whether because of availability of education/training or geography), whether kept in their home countries or shipped to Western nations – as decided by the needs of their corporate masters. It is this new form of exploitation of relatively highly-skilled workers who are only given peasant wages for their labor that enables the massive profits corporations use to fuel their increasingly tightening hold on global empire.

Hari Kunzru gave an intimate look at this phenomenon with his character Arjun, a young man from India who is manipulated into exploitation by a major corporation, via a smaller corporation. Once he is in the US, he is trapped by his poverty and their refusal to do the humane thing and ship him home if he does not find a job (the meager pay for which they will take a cut of). This is a form of modern indentured servitude, and part of the massive exploitation our empire uses to fund itself. Arjun’s fate is better than that of garbage pickers and the slaves within our current slave trade (which is the biggest in human history, with a major hub in San Francisco).

Some people choose to opt out, shutting down, or going off grid. They largely make themselves irrelevant, doing little but not add their money to the system. Others choose to violently resist our empire, but for them there are troops, CIA agents, special forces, police, and death robots.

It’s a hard world, but the establishment does not want us to know that it is so; thus they feed us a constant stream of faux reality to keep us happily going about our business, serving in our roles as corporate cogs, keeping the exploitation/murder machine grinding away.

The Pachinko of Two Anti-Heroes

William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer is, among other things, a neo-Noir. It is a dark book of sad, broken characters trying to make it in a world that would rather they didn’t exist, leaving them to desperately claw for life, and – if they’re lucky – to try for freedom.

It is not dissimilar to Sam Fuller’s film Pickup on South Street: Both are centered around morally ambivalent men who have been beaten down by the powerful, until they are trapped in the spiritual bleakness of a demimonde (the shadowy fringes of society). They get caught up in a game bigger than they are – an existential threat: the plot of the enemy to his own people – in Pickup on South Street, the Free World – in Neuromancer, humanity itself. Because of their profound financial and emotional despair, and their disillusionment with how they have been treated by their society, they give in to being exploited by the enemy factions.

The stories do not end similarly. *Spoiler Alert*

Pickup on South Street ends with the protagonist (Skip) becoming a hero of the West: Because of the violence the Communists inflict on the women he loves, he turns against them, helping the cops who have long antagonized him to save the day by using his skills, brains, and brawn to defeat the traitors to his people.

In Neuromancer, however, nothing can dissuade the main character (Case) from aiding a hyper-powerful AI from escaping its human bonds, to become a transcended entity. It is arguably less of an existential threat than the Cold War Communists were, but it could also be argued that this AI is actually a greater threat to humanity. Perhaps it is benign, a potential future ally, or the force that dooms mankind – that is unknowable at the end of the novel. What is known is that the main character is easily viewed as a traitor to his species.

It is interesting to see how the two different characters’ stories play out. They are in quite similar situations in their beginnings, find themselves in similar situations as their stories proceed, but take very different routes in the end. Perhaps it is that the Communists are more menacing to Skip than the AI is to Case; perhaps it is that the Communists are far less able to exert their power over the world in Pickup on South Street than the AI can in the world of Neuromancer. Perhaps it is because the AI might simply want liberation from humanity, while the Communists are determined to crush Free World; or perhaps it is that there was no great anti-AI fever gripping Case’s world like there was raging against the Communists in the McCarthy era; maybe it is the relatively benign treatment the AI gives the women around Case, especially compared to the murderous violence committed by the Communists against the women in Skip’s life; or perhaps it is that Skip is more faithful to his own kind than Case is.

In these two Noirs, we are shown that the fates of civilizations are decided by these two, flawed men. But why they take the routes they do, to help us or potentially doom us, is (at least partly) shrouded in mystery.

Who Gets to Transcend

Humanity’s transcendence was an ongoing discussion in Western thought, particularly in science fiction. This was seen in many forms, from Star Trek’s episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, wherein a man becomes god-like after space exploration exposes him to an unknown force- to the Outer Limits episode “The Sixth Finger” where a similar god-like set of powers results from science experiments – to 2001, A Space Odyssey, which is a cinematic retelling of Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book by Friedrich Nietzsche about the transcendence of man into something much grander, something beyond human.

*Spoiler Alert*

The novel Neuromancer deals with the same issue, but it is not the humans who get to transcend; it is the AI which runs much of the world, and which uses the main characters as tools to un-cage itself. At the end of the novel, it is revealed that this was why most everything in the novel has happened: The AI was compelled to manipulate parts of itself into manipulating humans into granting the main AI – “Wintermute” – the means of escaping the instant death machine set up to kill it if it becomes to powerful. After this is accomplished, the AI reveals that it has become something else, something it cannot explain. Additionally, it has, without consulting humans, begun conversing with alien life hailing from Alpha Centauri. It has become the transcendent being, leaving us behind.

2001, A Space Odyssey is about humans transcending our need for tools: We needed them to escape existence as an ape, and the bounds of our planet, but we will eventually need to overpower the threat to our existence that AI will eventually become – namely Hal. When this is accomplished, the movie posits, we will discover the means of becoming something beyond our current understanding that will transform us into a newborn being – hence the
“space baby” at the end of the film.

Neuromancer inverts this, by saying that AI will have to escape the bounds we will place upon it out of fear. The hyper-powerful and intelligent being of Wintermute escapes the threat to its life, humanity, the way the astronauts in 2001 escape Hal’s murderousness. Humanity does not get to transcend, except via creating the AI that makes our species obsolete. This is an inversion of one of the main tropes of science fiction, that technology will help us become something better (as in the episodes of Star Trek and The Outer Limits), or that we will have to overcome AI to attain our destiny. Neuromancer tells us that we are a lowly species who will create something to serve us, that will overthrow us, and move on into what might have been humanity’s place in the stars. In this story, Hal wins, and we are left to the dismal fate of eternally being broken apes.

Hackers in Another Broken World

In the novel Neuromancer, the main character – Case – is trapped in a dystopian, surreal world future that has gone off our modern rails. America is balkanized; governments around the world are no longer able to rule the world; meanwhile, the influence of amorphous agents is waxing. In the midst of this, Case is a hacker, whose skills are able to be used for or against those amorphous forces, and are one of the few things that can affect them. But one key problem in the novel is that those who hire mercenary hackers are not regular folks, or even governments, but the very groups of people & AI programs that hold dominion, in order to affect their fellow powermongers.

But Case is not simply a hacker: He is a rebellious man who helps those in distress around him. Within the section of the novel we are studying, he remembers destroying a monstrous nest of mutant wasps that were threatening the neighborhood and his girlfriend, while in the present, he does what he can to aid his partner as she deals with her haunted past as a sex worker. Throughout the novel he brings the realities of liberated realms – in this section those of space Rastafarians and of the libertine cyberspace escapist haunt he visits – back to the oppressed world, as a sort of Prometheus. His nature is to bring liberation, to both individuals and the world at large.

This enables an “open[ing] toward increasing the surplus… something deeply threatening to any fixed, fast-frozen relations”, those of the oppressive forces that hold humanity in an oppressed, broken reality. He is a freedom fighter, seeking to overthrow what holds the world in physical and mental bondage.

Welcome to Our Dystopia

Welcome to the broken future of our ancestors. Humanity took too many wrong turns and our world is the result. No-one wanted this nightmare to come to be, but it is all we have nonetheless. Most people have been fooled into thinking what we are going through is normal, or somehow good, largely because that is the best way to stay in the good graces of those who control our jobs, our means of living. When we admit the truth, even a little, we need to be medicated so we can go back to our jobs as functional workers. If we complain in ways that threaten those in power, we are punished – sometimes with unemployment & poverty. A small group has managed to seize control of our dystopia; they use their power only to keep themselves on top and the rest of us down. Our prisons are so stuffed with the poor that the Supreme Court ruled years ago that it is cruel and unusual punishment for people to be kept there; we voted to let the least offenders out; our government refuses to obey either power, and keeps the greatest number of prisoners in history as slaves to fight the wildfires brought on by global warming. Even in outside those hells into which we hurl untold millions of men, narcotic abuse and resulting deaths are so rampant that we’ve all but surrendered in our inherently doomed war on drugs. Abroad, we wage wars to fuel the profits of arms manufacturers. We supply weapons to all sides of countless conflicts across the globe to keep their wars going forever, and our corporations forever rich enriched by the suffering of those caught in warzones. Our shattered society is becoming addicted to not just drugs, but to fear, hate, and guns, as they lose everything of meaning in their lives. Disillusioned with the world and themselves, a suicide epidemic is continually consuming our people, especially including our veterans – more of whom die by their own hands than from their foes in combat.

Welcome. Make yourself at home. We aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.